In 2015, then-Texas state Senator Sylvia Garcia (D) introduced a bill requiring teachers, their aides and others who work in schools to have the same vaccinations as the children they oversee.
“I just thought, it makes sense,” said Garcia, who is now a freshman member of the House of Representatives. “If we expect that out of the kids, we should expect that out of the people around them, otherwise we aren’t helping anybody.”
On the day the bill was scheduled to be addressed in committee, Garcia entered the hearing room and was shocked to see it packed with demonstrators from Texans for Vaccine Choice.
“It was a surprise because they had not approached me, they had not talked to me, and then all of the sudden there’s all these people crowded in the hearing room,” she said.
The scene Garcia described from 2015 has since played out in committee rooms and legislative offices around the country as lawmakers try to end non-medical exemptions to certain childhood vaccinations in an effort to curb outbreaks of measles, mumps and other preventable diseases that have been made worse in areas where fewer children are vaccinated.
Experts say the anti-vaccine or vaccine choice groups, as they commonly refer to themselves, are becoming larger, better organized and funded in part because their prolific use of social media, as well as the rise of a group founded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. which has helped to coordinate their efforts to push back on new laws.
“Social media has given it a national presence. It’s no longer just a collection of different states, it’s now gone across the country,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, a vaccine researcher and pediatrician. “Right now you might call it a media empire—you have almost 500 anti-vaccine websites.”
The campaign has not just been online or in the statehouses, either. On Feb. 22, 2019, Kennedy’s group, Children’s Health Defense, posted a call to action on its site to get activists to show up on Capitol Hill for a set of vaccine-related hearings.
“We absolutely must have representation at these hearings,” the post said. “It’s crucial that we have as many parents and advocates as possible in attendance at both.”
The call to action was co-signed by over 50 like-minded, mostly state-based groups. Activists who attended the Feb. 27 hearing on the recent measles outbreaks could be heard jeering loudly when both Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, stated the measles vaccine was safe and rarely caused complications like brain swelling.
Days later, at a hearing in the Senate, members of the anti-vaccine movement began to cheer when Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) appeared to side with them. (Paul, an ophthalmologist, has said he is pro-vaccine but has often used his platform to argue against mandatory vaccinations for children.)
As a reaction to the recent outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, several states have taken action to close the loopholes that allow parents with religious or philosophical objections to vaccines to enroll their children in school. There are currently 17 states that allow exemptions to vaccines on moral, personal or other beliefs. Efforts to reduce that number even further have prompted heated pushback from anti-vaccination groups.
Earlier this month in Maine, a hearing for a bill that would have removed religious and philosophical exemptions from vaccines for children seeking to enter school was filled with hundreds of activists, according to The Portland Press Herald.
In Washington State, a measles outbreak prompted the House to pass a bill ending all non-medical exemptions for children required to be vaccinated before attending public schools—but not before the capitol was flooded with protesters.
Governor Jay Inslee, now a Democratic candidate for president, expressed concerns about an “increasing number of people who are ignoring clear science and decades of effective practice”.
“It has become clear that those who oppose vaccines are very vocal, well organized and social media savvy,” Tara Lee, a spokeswoman for the governor, said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “While the governor respects their right to hold these divergent opinions, he has serious concerns about the public health impact of misinformation that results in fewer vaccinations.”
At least four states—Colorado, Texas, Vermont and Michigan—have nonprofits promoting the so-called vaccine choice movement and there are advocates for more flexible vaccine laws in every state. As noted in a November article in Wired, several of these groups have grown increasingly politically active, with some focusing just on state and local elections and others endorsing candidates in congressional contests as well.
Texans for Vaccine Choice, one of the better organized groups, formed a political action committee that has endorsed state candidates in at least the last two election cycles. Their funding comes largely from conservative donors, according to Transparency Texas.
The PAC saw a massive funding increase from 2016 to 2018, raising $248,760 in 2018 as opposed to $63,271 in the 2016 cycle, according to Transparency Texas. That increase is largely due to a $90,000 donation from Jo Ann and Farris Wilks. The Wilks family are major Republican donors and boosters of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) as well as a litany of other conservative causes.
The group’s YouTube channel is filled with interviews with the founders, montages of rallies, clips of comments by like-minded politicians (including Senator Paul) and a TMZ-like ambush of then-Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke (D), who, the video said, had not answered their questions about his views on vaccine choice. (O’Rourke told activist Jackie Schlegel in the clip he needed to read up on the issue but his own children were vaccinated.)
However, Jinny Suh, the head of Immunize Texas, a pro-vaccine group, said while Texans for Vaccine Choice had message discipline in the past, in recent months they’ve veered from vaccine choice to blatantly anti-vaccine.
“They are kind of sounding a little desperate,” she said, citing some of their candidate losses in the midterm elections. “I think because of that their message is not as controlled.”
Still, she said, they remain extremely active at the capitol in Austin.
“I will say, they are very loud and they are very present, they are at the Capitol every week, and they hit all of the offices as far as I know, every week,” she said. “Which is a lot for any group… that’s almost 200 offices, [they] visit every one of those, every week.”
Connie Johnson, media director of Michigan for Vaccine Freedom, said efforts on the state and federal level to end personal and religious exemptions to vaccinations have added fuel to their movement. Johnson, who said her group wasn’t anti-vaccine but stood for parental choice, specifically cited comments made by former Food and Drug Administrator Dr. Scott Gottlieb who told CNN during a conversation about the measles outbreaks that if “certain states continue down the path that they’re on, I think they’re going to force the hand of the federal health agencies.”
“People are more inclined to donate at times like that, people are more inclined to meet with their legislators at a time like that, we have been poised for moments like this,” Johnson said. “We are up against a multi-billion dollar [pharmaceutical] industry with our little tax exempt nonprofit.”
Last year, Michigan for Vaccine Freedom’s PAC, which began largely through the backing of a single donor but since has attracted smaller donations from nearly 100 people, raised $11,769.50, according to the most recent financial filing.
“It’s not even David and Goliath,” she added, “it’s the stone in David’s hand versus Goliath, but our aim is true and we are not going anywhere and we are not going down without a fight.”
Not every group in the anti-vaccine movement says it is seeing growth. Ginger Taylor, director of the Maine Coalition for Vaccine Choice, said her organization was struggling for funding, especially when they were battling “a $30 billion a year liability-free pharmaceutical sector.”
But, on the whole, the movement is on the rise, experts say. At the heart of it is Kennedy’s group, which Hotez said has become an umbrella organization for “all the anti-vaxxers that are out there.”
Children’s Health Defense board includes heavy hitters in the anti-vaccine world like JB Handley, a Oregon-based hedge fund broker who founded Generation Rescue, a group now fronted by celebrity anti-vaxxer Jenny McCarthy.
Requests for Children’s Health Defense’s most recent IRS forms and their role in the movement went unanswered. But judging by photos of fundraisers and those that were conducted online, the group appears to have exceeded the $467,443 raised in 2014 under its former name, the World Mercury Project, and the $165,937 it raised in 2015.
In a photo posted on Facebook in February 2019, Kennedy is pictured on stage with two men at CalJam, an annual gathering of chiropractors, handing Kennedy a comically large check for $500,000.
A contest to spend the weekend with Kennedy at the family compound at Hyannis Port has raised more than $13,000 from 272 donors, according to figures on the fundraising page.
Children’s Health Defense also raised $22,000 on Facebook’s Giving Tuesday.
“Facebook and Paypal have teamed up to match all of the donations on Facebook Fundraisers on Giving Tuesday up to the first $7 Million,” the post on the fundraising page notes.
The group also receives money from the “Amazon Smile” program, but how much they have received was unclear. The amount a charity has raised through the system is only available if the user donates money to that entity.
“They’ve basically weaponized Amazon,” Hotez said. “ Amazon is, in many respects, an anti-vaccine website... it’s one of the worst leading the charge, selling phony anti-vaccine books.”
Facebook and other social media sites have begun to crack down on pages that are spreading false information about the risks of vaccines or links between vaccines and autism. While Facebook has pledged not to recommend anti-vaccine sites to users, as of last week, a reporter for NBC News noted, the changes had yet to take place.
In response to a question from The Daily Beast regarding the matching funds, a Facebook spokesman said, “We are in the beginning stages of removing access to our fundraising tools for Pages that violate our vaccine misinformation policies.”
On Friday, GoFundMe announced they were banning anti-vaccinate entities from using their site.
Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Prevention, warned that the growth of the anti-vaccine movement was part of a larger, rapidly emerging worldwide problem.
“The sophistication of messaging is certainly important—how you can make information look so official [online].” he said. “I think that in the old days the conventional wisdom around anti-vaccine efforts were just provide information, just educate the public and they will see the truth, and I think we are way beyond that.”